An espionage mystery set at the beginning of the Cold War, The Good German has all the trappings of vintage 1940's Hollywood, catching the aura of The Third Man or A Foreign Affair.
The busy Steven Soderbergh, an indie filmmaker at heart, even with smashes like Erin Brockovich and Ocean's Eleven, can't make this film noir experiment bristle rather than seem opaque despite his use what was only available to directors like Michael Curtiz back in those golden years.
In this new thriller from the talent behind Bubble and Traffic, there was no zoom lenses or wireless microphones utilized and the aspect ratio was altered to make the framing authentic to the time when b/w was predominant.
This adaption of a Joseph Kanon tome by Paul Attansio is set in 1945 Berlin as the Potsdam (post-war) conference is to begin.
George Clooney is molded from the likes of Humphrey Bogart as jaded journalist (for New Republic magazine) to cover the event where the Big Three leaders of the US, England, and Russia would attend.
His Jake really wants to rekindle things with Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett of Babel), a local gal he left behind and is now married to a German scientist, Emil (Christian Olivier). Lena claims that he has perished in the bombing that has devastated the city. In her husky voice, she avers, "you never leave Berlin."
Jake is chagrined when learning that his motor pool driver, Corporal Tully (Tobey Maguire of Spider-Man 2), has had relations with his former girlfriend. The innocent clean-cut American also has connections to the black market. The capricious, insinuating storyline will have Jake investigating a murder that leads into corruption connecting the US, Germany, and the emerging power known as the Soviet Union.
Soderbergh doubles as cinematographer and editor to capture the gloominess of it all as a conspiracy looms large. With forceful voice-over, the designs of Philip Messina underline the severity and entropy of Berlin where "no one's hands are clean." Backup characters like a generous barman (Tony Curran), a smarmy attorney (Leland Orser), an unassuming commander (Beau Bridges), and a guileful Russian (Ravil Issyanov) offer a bit of color to the proceedings.
Yet the triangle at the top feels awkward, mainly because the actors just don't get together, especially Clooney and Blanchett, as well as the latter with Maguire who seems miscast as the conflicted driver. Clooney comes across more dull and plodding during the investigation than with a tempered timelessness about him and Blanchett is more mannered than a striking, steely, bitter hybrid of Marlene Dietrich and Ingrid Bergman.
Ultimately, Blanchett's watchable femme fatale, like The Good German, is hampered by its labored, convoluted nature that never untangles itself while Thomas Newman's music surges moodily. The importance of Lena coming to terms with her past is never really certain and questions arise about Emil's fate, as connections to his rocket research have potential dire consequences. The last shot clearly reminds one of the seminal Casablanca, but Soderbergh's portal to the past with a wink to modern overseas avarice isn't "looking at you, kid" like it could have.